Chinese emperor Wuzong (814–846) reigned for only six years, from 840 until his early death. His role in Chinese history is significant, however: at the end of his life Wuzong carried out major repressive measures against religions of foreign origin, especially Buddhism, and thereby altered the development of religious life in China.

Wuzong (sometimes transliterated as Wu-tsung) was born in 814 in the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang'an (now Xi'an), likely on July 1. His name at birth was Li Chan; he took the name Wuzong upon ascending to the imperial throne. Li Chan was the fifth son of Tang Emperor Muzong, who reigned from 821 to 824. Along with several other sons, he was made a prince of one of the regions under Tang control. Not much is known of his childhood and education; after Muzong's death in 824, Wuzong's older brother was chosen as emperor and took the name Jingzong. He was assassinated in 827, at the age of just 17, by a group of conspirators dissatisfied with his carousing ways. Another older brother, Li Han, then took the throne as Wenzong.

Drama Surrounded Line of Succession

Wenzong's death in 840 brought about a fresh spate of palace intrigues. The emperor had intended to make his own son, Li Yong, crown prince, but Li Yong's death in 838 frustrated those plans. Competing forces surrounding the succession included the deceased emperor's advisers (known as chancellors), a group of women comprising concubines and dowager widows of former rulers and other powerful figures, and eunuchs, courtiers who, castrated as children, formed a distinct group within China's imperial civil service. The attraction for Chinese emperors of having eunuchs as advisers was that, since they would have no children, they had no motivation to establish a hereditary ruling dynasty. The eunuchs at Wenzong's court are thought to have admired Wuzong and backed him as the new emperor. In any event, Wuzong ascended to the throne as Tang emperor on February 20, 840, aged 25.

The Tang Dynasty represented something of a golden age in Chinese history: Its well-developed civil service supported an efficient military that extended Chinese rule over a large area. The capital city of Chang’an was one of the largest cities in the world, if not the largest, and its technology advanced with such innovations as wood-block printing. Within China, Buddhism had expanded in influence over time and had developed distinctive branches.

During the early years of Wenzong's reign, difficulties loomed, however. The dynasty faced the collapse of a major ally, the Uighur Khanate in what is now Western China, which had come under attack from Kyrgyz forces, tribal invaders from the east, and fragmented, creating large refugee flows and scattered military attacks. Wuzong also faced unrest in the Zhaoyi region. It was within this context that he began to begin to impinge the Buddhist influence within China.

The court eunuchs who had supported Wenzong as emperor were generally sympathetic to Buddhism, but the sentiment was by no means universal at court, or within Tang society at large. The religion faced resistance from Chinese nationalists and from adherents of China's homegrown religion, Taoism, particularly, inasmuch as Taoists of the time had borrowed Buddhist texts and monastic structures. The two religions were in constant competition for adherents. Wuzong also saw Buddhism as a drain on the state treasury in a time of large military expenditures because its monasteries were tax exempt.

While scholars have debated the extent to which Wuzong's crackdown on Buddhism was motivated by financial factors, as opposed to personal animosity toward the religion, determining his intent is complicated by the fact that the fullest accounts of his reign were composed by Ennin, a Japanese Buddhist monk who was traveling in China at the time. Ennin was not an unbiased observer, but he recorded the events that then occurred in valuable detail.

Staged a Religious Debate

Another forerunner of the crackdown was a measure promulgated in early 842, probably by chancellor and minister of state Li Deyu, a close adviser to Wuzong and an increasingly powerful figure in his administration. As the overseer of military attempts to stamp out Uighur violence in Tang border regions, Li proposed the regulation of monks and nuns, prohibiting the appointment of boys as new novices and stripping the titles of Buddhist clergy whose appointments were found to be irregular in some way. The order, couched in officialese, was typical of the bureaucratic nature of the Tang state, but it was significant enough that it was resisted by the court eunuchs and their leader, Chiu Shih-liang.

Indeed, the growing persecution of Buddhists in China coincided with a decline in the health of Chiu, and it accelerated dramatically following his death in 843. At this point, Li Deyu ordered the placement of his allies in the two military posts Chiu had held, and Chiu's family home—now occupied by his adopted son and heir—was ransacked. Chiu's son, while drunk, exclaimed that Wuzong would not have come to power had it not been for his father. In consequence, the emperor had Chiu's son killed, and ordered the hair of the son's wives shaved off. The considerable riches of Chiu's home—jewels, gold, silver, cash, silk, and elephant tusks—were transported to the state palace in daily convoys of 30 carts for more than a month. According to Ennin, in an account translated and quoted by Edwin O. Reischauer in Ennin's Travels in T'ang China, Wuzong went to observe the treasure and, “striking his hands together in surprise, he said, ‘Our storehouses have never before contained such things,’ and the high functionaries bowed their heads and did not speak.”

It was now late in 842 and the regulations Wuzong placed on Buddhist clergy were being further expanded. The private holdings of some monks were confiscated and those who refused such treatment were defrocked. Meanwhile, Wuzong's support for Taoism deepened. The following year he ordered the construction of a large convent for a Taoist priestess, and he required scholars in his court to follow Taoism. Buddhists resisted in various ways, including by spreading a rumor that Wuzong had made advances toward a Buddhist priestess he met in a Taoist convent, showered her with gifts of silk, and ordered a passageway built to connect the building with his palace.

Closed Monasteries and Defrocked Priests

Between 844 and 845 Wuzong's devotion to Taoism—and his persecution of Buddhists—intensified. He had a 150-foot-high “Terrace of the Immortals” constructed, perhaps with the intention of demonstrating his disbelief in the Buddhist idea of Nirvana—liberation from the cycle of endless rebirth. Buddhist fasting dates were officially disallowed. Large numbers of Buddhist priests were defrocked and, in the second half of 844, returned to the tax rolls. While this measure may have been intended to fund a new military campaign against rebels in the Lu Fu region, Wuzong also ordered the destruction of Buddhist pillars and graves. A few months later, small monasteries were shuttered and their possessions confiscated. Finally Buddhist monks and nuns were defrocked—first those under 40, then those between 40 and 50, and finally those over 50.

As Ennin reported, toward the end of 845, Wuzong began to carry out grotesquely violent acts, against both Buddhists and other of his subjects. According to the Japanese chronicler, the Tang emperor shot (with a bow) a construction supervisor at the Terrace of the Immortals and meted out the same treatment to his stepmother, who had refused his sexual advances. Innocent farmers in the Lu-fu border region were seized as rebels, Ennin wrote, and hacked into pieces by Wuzong's soldiers. He had the head of an opponent carried through the streets on a spear, and in late 845, was reported to have demanded that provincial administrators furnish him with the hearts and livers of sacrificed 15-year-old boys and girls.

Regardless of whether Ennin exaggerated these stories, the basic facts of Wuzong's persecution of the Buddhists were set down in his own chronicle of his reign. As translated and quoted on the Asia for Educators website, he wrote that, “having thoroughly examined all earlier reports and consulted public opinion on all sides, we no longer have the slightest doubt in Our mind that this Evil [Buddhism] should be eradicated…. The temples of the empire that have been demolished number more than 4,600; 26,500 monks and nuns have been returned to lay life and enrolled as subject to the Twice-a-Year tax; more than 40,000 privately established temples have been destroyed, releasing 30 or 40 million qing of fertile, top-grade land and 150,000 male and female servants who will become subject to the Twice-a-Year tax.” More than 100,000 Buddhists had been expelled from the realm, Wuzong recorded, in chronicling his accomplishments, and many of their “gaudy, useless” buildings were destroyed.

Wuzong also took measures to stamp out other nonChinese faiths, including Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and forms of Eastern Christianity. In 845, he asked Taoist alchemists to provide him with elixirs that would make him immortal. Not only did they not have the desired effect; Ennin reported that they might have caused the increasingly irrational behavior the emperor exhibited in his last days. Toward the end of his life, for obscure symbolic reasons, Wuzong changed his name to Li Yan. He died on April 22, 846, and was succeeded not by one of his five sons or seven daughters, but by his uncle Li Yi, who took the name Xuanzong. Although Xuanzong revoked Wuzong's anti-Buddhist edicts, the religion's place in Chinese life had been damaged to the point that it was was permanently weakened.


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Dardess, John, Governing China: 150–1850, Hackett, 2010.

de Bary, William Theodore, and Irene Bloom, compilers, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press, 1999.

Drompp, Michael Robert, Tang China and the Collapse of the Uighur Empire: A Documentary History, Brill, 2004.

Karetzky, Patricia Eichenbaum, Court Art of the Tang, CreateSpace, 2012.

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Reischauer, Edwin O., Ennin's Travels in T'ang China, Ronald Press, 1955.


Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, Volume 14, number 1 (2004), Timothy H. Barrett, “The Madness of Emperor Wuzong,” pp. 173–186.


China Post online, http://www.chinapost.com.tw/ (March 17, 2008), Joe Hung, “Wu Zong and the Buddhists.” ❑

(MLA 8th Edition)